Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’

A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century.

Having written an article – even before it opened – about how interesting I expected the ‘Encounters’ exhibition at the National Museum of Australia to be, based solely on publicity about its content, I thought I’d better get there before it finished. The exhibition has now closed and very soon all the ancient objects borrowed from the British Museum will retrace their original paths from Australia to Britain. Why review an exhibition that no longer exists?

The National Museum of Australia sits on the Acton Peninsula in Canberra, on Ngunnawal country.

‘Encounters’ the exhibition, a brief moment in our shared history, may have finished, but it has left us once again to our own drawn-out real encounters with our predecessors on this continent. The exhibition may have finished but the experiences it speaks of continue. For that reason it’s worth reflecting at some length on the exhibition and what it meant from the perspective of Australian culture.

Emerging, blinking
On that mild Easter Friday I emerged blinking around midday, clutching a heavy catalogue, looking like a refugee from a film festival. After over two and a half hours taking in the exhibition, I knew it was time well spent. It was a weighty exhibition – in fact it was actually several exhibitions in one – and the ghosts that roam through it keep intruding on the main event.

I walked out into an autumn day in the national capital feeling as though I had brushed up against a layer of Australian history – past and contemporary – that provides a quiet depth and continuity to the experience of being Australian. While this is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history – and a big history at that – what is so interesting for all Australians is that it is also Australian history and if you approach it with curiosity and interest, you will learn much that will enrich your appreciation of being Australian.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers ‘Encounters’ would undoubtedly have conveyed very particular meanings. What I am interested in is what it conveyed to Australians generally. This is in many ways a dismal history, though also full of inspiring moments, but it is our history – good and bad, every last bit of it – and so, if you are someone who takes being an Australian seriously, it is endlessly fascinating. It is also a pointer to the future, a map for how to do a better job the second (and third) time around.

The depth and continuity in the exhibition is often captured unexpectedly in small, moving epiphanies – the 14 year old Dieri schoolgirl who upon seeing stone game pieces from the British Museum collected around 1895, exclaimed ‘I know how to play stone games. I bet I could play this game, too’. It’s glimpsed in the young Nyoongar woman performing a graceful emu dance on the banks of the Swan River, painted in white ochre, still with her bright pink nail polish.

The day before yesterday
It’s an exhibition about a bloody history, but also about unbowed people – those that are left. Disease, alcoholism, massacres, prison – all the usual benefits of colonial occupation had their effect. It’s a two-edged sword, just as with collections, but it’s still a sword. Theft of cultural objects may have meant they were more or less well preserved for all time, including in this instance, however briefly, for the descendants of those robbed where it happened – but it’s still theft.

Ironically, having had the population almost obliterated in many area by the forces that accompanied settlement, and what remained moved on to missions and reserves, Aboriginal numbers are now some of the the fastest growing in Australia. This means a huge young population, often unknowing about their own history and culture.

A portrait of people just trying to get on with life – often resisting, though outgunned – while a holocaust rages around them is very strong. The sense of history is powerful – and not only Australian history. A palawa commentator from Tasmania, a descendant of trawulwuy people, made the point that the portraits of people at Wybalena on Flinders Island are ‘as powerful and important as photographs of internees in concentration camps in Europe [such as Dachau].’ He went on to say ‘They are people being held who have been subject to immense injustice and discrimination and racism..they are a testament to the strength, not just of the Aboriginal spirit but also the human spirit, which allows people to survive these sort of things, whether they occur in Van Dieman’s Land in the 1830s or… in Europe in the 1930s, only 100 years later.’

All this happened only a short time ago. It’s not that many years ago that there were people still alive who fought with Jandamarra, who heard a grandparent talk of actually seeing Cook’s crew as they stole spears from their camps. It's hard to realise that all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that Gweagal descendants still talk about that first eight day encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. This may not be yesterday but it is the day before yesterday.

Every part of Australia has a story to tell
There were a couple of areas of this shared history I was particularly interested in – Wiradjuri in Western NSW because I have worked closely with quite a few Wiradjuri, both in government and outside, and Wiradjuri have been very active in the movement to reclaim Indigenous languages. I was also attracted to the material about the Yolngu in East Arnhem Land because of my fascination with the Makassan connection – and its links to the real start of the Asian Century. Above all I was interested in the Palawa in Tasmania because I grew up there in a period when it was assumed that Tasmanian Aboriginal people had ‘died out’ (in my day, and still now, expressed as the passive ‘died out’, suggesting it simply happened by accident). How wrong everyone was.

I was also fascinated by the material from Sydney, given I had also lived there recently and it had been the point of first settlement, so it was the part of Australia with the longest experience of the colonial society that was to emerge. In the exhibition we see Sydney through a very different lens. I didn’t realise that local Aboriginal people continued living and fishing on North Head until 1959, when Nana Watson was the last person removed – probably along with her fishing rod.

Of course there are also the two iconic spears of the more than 40 stolen by Cook's crew very early in the span of this story. As I said in my earlier article, for explorers at the time Australia must have seemed like another planet. For the Gweagal watching Cook’s sailing ship comes gliding through the entrance to Botany Bay it must have been the equivalent for us of seeing an intergalactic space ship approaching. To grasp what it must have felt like for both parties we have to step into the world of science fiction to reconnect with the sense of strangeness.

Contemporary traditions
Amongst the contemporary objects are two new spears made at Kurnell by a family member descended from those original spear-makers that are almost identical to the ones Cook took. It there were any doubts that tradition lives on, this most ancient of objects and its modern counterpart should put them to rest.

If you also took the opportunity to see the companion exhibition, ‘Unsettled’, as I did the following day, you would have added another dimension to the experience of the main exhibition. ‘Unsettled’ contains work by five leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists produced in response to ‘Encounters’. Culture is  a crucial presence throughout ‘Encounters’. An exhibition that interprets many of the issues raised by the main exhibition, as part of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture, is an invaluable addition. It connects to the creative work happening in communities through art centres, for example the fabulous ‘ghost net’ sculptures being produced by recycling abandoned and drifting fishing nets by the art centre on Erub in the Torres Strait.  

It brings home the fact that the past is always changing as the present which is so intertwined with it keeps changing shape. I've said before that Australia might look like a modern, innovative and forward looking sort of country but it is really two separate countries overlaid – each going in opposite directions. Choosing which country you want to be part of is partly about the future but it is also about clearly understanding the past.

Broken promises and forced removal are big themes running through the exhibition. I can’t help but think that all this involuntary ‘removal’ brings to mind the endless rattling trains of the Nazi industrial machine, that shuttled whole suburbs of people from one side of Europe to another. When your natural inclination is to stay put somewhere, being moved against your will must be particularly shocking.

It’s in the personal accounts of these historical happenings – how land was taken, how culture was ignored, how people were moved – that the ghosts roaming the exhibition slip out. The exhibition tries to show both the damage done and the moments of mutual accommodation – and there were instances enough of both. However, every now and then, rearing up from the historical record, witnesses stop trying to sound balanced and just speak their truth. The British commented that the shield they had taken in Botany Bay had a hole from ‘a lance’ in it. It seems far more likely that it is a bullet hole, given that the crew fired their weapons at the resisting locals, wounding one of them. As one of the present-day locals commented, ‘no-one writes themselves down as the villain.’

Everything is connected – not one exhibition but several
I always say that everything is connected – usually in unexpected ways. At the same time as this exhibition, a major exhibition of Australian icon, Tom Roberts, had been on at the National Gallery of Australia. In ferreting around in the British Museum collection for all things Australian, a set of sketches by Tom Roberts from the time he visited the Torres Strait was uncovered, ascribed to a T. Roberts – if it’s filed wrongly, it might as well not exist. He was obviously enthralled by the cultural life of the islands far to the north of Melbourne.

The exhibition is not one single exhibition but several. It’s about the history of the encounter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with the steady spread of settlement, of how different views of the human purposes of the natural world sometimes managed to coexist – but usually didn’t. There is a parallel exhibition here, that is about the role of collections and culture. It raises all sorts of questions about the responsibilities and roles of collecting institutions. I was struck by how many people commented that they had learned the old craft skills that were disappearing – from their family and from studying examples in museums.

The issue of repatriation stalks the exhibition. There are mixed views expressed in the exhibition but the weight of opinion expressed in the exhibition seems to clearly lean to return of material. This is not something that is likely to occur any time soon – witness the long battle for the Elgin/Parthenon marbles. However, it’s wise to prepare because history has a tendency to surprise us – I expect the exhibition will reinforce campaigns for repatriation. Where they will lead no-one knows.

Entering the cultural mainstream - popular culture and creative industries
The exhibition also crossed over into popular culture. The beach, such a strong component in Australian popular culture is where the the invaders landed, wading in through the surf. It’s also the boundary between different cultures, brought into contact by Europe’s dominant maritime culture.

It also touches on an important new development in Indigenous culture – the emerging strengths of nascent creative industries, particularly involving design. Back in 2013 I attended an exciting Indigenous fashion show at the transitional Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair in Cairns. It drew on designs from art centres in Far North Queensland, the Torres Strait and the Northern Territory. ‘Encounters’ references a subsequent event, Indigenous Fashion Week at Sydney Town Hall in 2014, which drew on the designs of Bundjalung and Galibal weavers and makers from the mid North coast of NSW. This area, drawing as it does on Indigenous intellectual property created from Indigenous culture, with the potential to create jobs and income for Indigenous communities, is an area of great promise, well worth watching.

The negotiation with collections institutions extends far beyond this exhibition. Indigenous languages organisations, including community-based language centres and umbrella bodies like First Languages Australia, have spent over five years building up a valuable working relationship with national and state collections institutions in Australia to start the process of identifying languages material held – often unidentified – in their collections. How this work will be affected by the continual funding cuts affecting these institutions is hard to tell. Having finally got them on side, community organisations may find there is no longer the same ability to respond in these straitened times.

Making a home – unfinished business
This exhibition brought home that all of us having reached the refuge of Australia at different points over the last 217 years, are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to belong to this land – and how to accept those who were here long before us and others who have come after us to try to do the same.

Repeatedly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people quoted in the exhibition made the point ‘look after the earth and the earth will look after you.’ It was such a constant theme that the Torres Strait Islander echoed it with their own maritime version – ‘look after the sea and the sea will look after you.’

We have reached a sort of half-arsed, half-hearted accommodation with the original inhabitants, the First Australians, who had worked out how to live well here over thousands of years. In their attempt to cross the continent Burke and Wills died because short on food, they didn’t understand how to treat the grains from the native grasses in order to make them digestible – they ignored simple advice from the local people which could have saved their lives. What is striking is how much valuable traditional knowledge had been passed on, from as far back as the 19th century, to those interested in listening.

Will we ignore the experience and expertise from living on this continent which could help us? Or won’t we know how to do so successfully because we don’t really know how to learn new things, no matter how old they might be? Innovation is the catchphrase at the moment but innovation includes thinking creatively about how to apply knowledge from the past in the service of the future – that’s our challenge if we want to make Australia not just the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition but a truly great nation of the 21st Century.

See also

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Arts funding – it’s not all about the money
‘National Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, has said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding and that an arts Minister or a government shouldn’t be judged just on the quantum of money the government puts in. This sidesteps the Government’s very real problems that it has muddied the waters of existing arts funding, cutting many worthwhile organisations loose with no reason, that rather than delivering arts funding, it has reduced it significantly, and that it has no coherent strategy or policy to guide its arts decisions or direction. The real issue is that a national framework, strategy or policy for arts and culture support underpins and provides a rationale for arts funding – and is far more important’, Arts funding – it’s not all about the money.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

National arts policy – excelling in the mediocrity stakes
‘I am not too concerned who manages national arts funding. Both the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts have long managed numerous funding programs. I am more concerned about what is funded. The fact that the national pool of arts funding available to support the operational costs of smaller arts and cultural organisations has shrunk substantially is a deep concern. Watch as Australia’s arts and culture sector reels over the next five years from this exceptionally bad policy decision – and expect the early warning signs much sooner. Well- known and respected figures in the arts and culture sector have been expressing this concern sharply’, National arts policy – excelling in the mediocrity stakes.

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts
‘Asked in the most recent Senate Additional Estimates hearings about cuts to Ministry for the Arts funding in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook review, the Department of Communications and the Arts replied that there were cuts of $9.6m over the forward estimates. This seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and underestimates, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage. Yet this is the real and permanent impact – a compound effect of creeping cuts’, Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding ‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats
‘The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture’, Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister
‘I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old,’ Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

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